Libby Peck offers tips on going abroad in her last column from Rome.
I’m going to be honest. There is no possible way for me to encompass my semester abroad in a 900-word column. So, to quote the proverbial tool, John Mayer, “Maybe I will tell you all about it when I’m in the mood to lose my way with words.” Or, when I’m in the mood to write a novel.
Sometimes the easiest way to organize ideas is in a list so, in a very abbreviated form, here’s what I can tell you about going abroad:
Listen to advice.
Yeah, I guess this would include the advice you’re reading, but mostly I mean the advice of pre-departure materials. “Pack light,” “the residence gets cold at night” and “we advise you only take four classes while abroad” are all phrases I wish I had highlighted, bolded and italicized before I packed my life up for a semester: I haven’t worn half the clothes I brought, I’ve consistently worn my robe and slippers to bed for warmth, and I’ve been stressed beyond measure with the amount of work I’ve had due in the past month. Time travel, anyone?
Know the basics
Before you go to any foreign country, I thought it was common sense to know key communicative words in the native language. For example, I leave for Paris in a few hours, and I know “bonjour,” “au revoir,” “merci,” “oui” and “non.” Not exactly native, but I think I’ll get by.
However, when one of my friends came to visit from London, she complained because no one spoke English and she knew no Italian — not even “ciao.” Although sometimes we can communicate perfectly fine with gestures, never underestimate the power of language.
Keep an open mind about everything
Rome — and Italy in general — is absolutely nothing like America. It’s kind of jarring when you have to avoid stepping in dog poop on the street (who knew dogs would poop on a sidewalk?), are unable to get anything done during siesta from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and have no drunk food available in the middle of the night except at McDonald’s.
But the fact that I went through culture shock means I did, in fact, experience culture. Why would you study abroad if it would be exactly like home? I may not like the Italian way of life, but it has certainly opened my eyes to a way of living I would never have experienced otherwise.
You’re in a foreign country with a visa. If you do something bad at the wrong place at the wrong time, you could easily get shipped back to where you came from. Stay sane enough to realize that getting a ride home from a wine festival (curse you, Merino) with a complete stranger is probably a bad idea, as is kicking a local’s butt in your apartment complex’s courtyard.
Just because you’re abroad doesn’t mean you get to be stupid.
I mean, I guess when I wasn’t stuck in the library, classroom or darkroom, I was able to go out and have some adventure in Roma. I’ve managed to meet an Australian UFC fighter, have individual roses purchased for me, jump off a 35-foot cliff into the Mediterranean Sea, stroll through St. Peter’s Square like it’s my backyard, see the Eiffel Tower on Thanksgiving Day and drink beer in the land of beers. The things I remember most vividly are the things I wouldn’t be able to do at home, and at the end of it all, that’s the real reason we study abroad – to experience, to live.
I would be lying if I said this semester was easy for me, but I’d also be lying if I said I didn’t have the experience of a lifetime along the way. There were days when I was an emotional wreck, as expected; reckless about my safety; wrecked on a night bus for two hours at the edge of the city; and wrecked for nights upon nights with new friends.
But now that it’s said and done, I was wrecked in Rome, and as I predicted at the beginning at the semester, much worse could’ve happened.
Libby Peck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.